Underrepresented entrepreneurs connect to business-building expertise,

Tammy Allen, Director | Marketing & Programs, The NIIC
Julie Sanchez, NIIC Breakthrough Program Manager and Consultant, shown on left coaching Vanessa Hayden, Breakthrough Program participant

The NIIC’s Breakthrough Program breaks barriers to success

For Immediate Release

November 30, 2020, Fort Wayne, Ind.—Irene Paxia has been advocating for immigrant and refugee groups since before arriving in Fort Wayne from her native Italy 15 years ago. The Indiana University (Bloomington) graduate understands the challenges faced by newcomers. Today, as Executive Director of Amani Family Services, she’s again putting herself into immigrants’ shoes by becoming one of the first participants in The NIIC Breakthrough Program. It connects aspiring entrepreneurs from underrepresented and underestimated populations with business-building resources and expertise.

“Many of the immigrants and refugees that come here have a dream of starting a business,” Paxia said. “They arrive with some business experience, but they have to navigate the systems here, and that’s not easy to do. Immigrants lack contact networks. They lack credit history. There are language issues. It’s very intimidating. Just learning how things work here in America is difficult without a mentor.”

So, Paxia stepped into the role of mentor by becoming one of the first to enroll in The NIIC’s Breakthrough Program. Funded by a generous grant from the Foellinger Foundation, the program leads participants through eight modules or paths of self-paced instruction along the entrepreneurial journey. It takes about three to six months to complete the program.

Participating in the program herself provides insights for her own future business concept while also piloting the program for immigrants and refugees served by Amani Family Services.  Along the way, she provides input to The NIIC for making the program more relevant and accessible to English learners.

Amani Family Services is among a small group The NIIC refers to as trusted connectors, organizations who serve underrepresented and underestimated populations. They connect their clients to the Breakthrough Program. “We believe everyone should have the opportunity to start a business. The Breakthrough Program serves as a source of inspiration, a catalyst, and a connector to those interested and motivated business builders who are interested in starting a business,” said Karl R. LaPan, NIIC President and CEO.

Julie Sanchez serves as Breakthrough Program Manager and Consultant. “I would have been a great candidate for this program when I started my business,” said Sanchez. She is a new entrepreneur herself and the CEO and President of Expert Business Solutions. “I have a passion for serving the underestimated groups for whom Breakthrough Program was designed—minorities, immigrants, refugees, the disabled, veterans, formerly incarcerated persons, and rural business builders.”

Sanchez credits the program for being strategically designed for those who lack experience, resources and confidence to start a business. “We tell our clients, ‘Yes you can! You can be a business owner. You can be an entrepreneur.’ Then, we work with these individuals every step along the way,” said Sanchez.  “The journey is as important as the launch. We get them to launch, but don’t leave them there.”

Sanchez said she appreciates the growing network of trusted connectors like Paxia at Amani Family Services, who are leveraging deep relationships in the community to bring potential entrepreneurs into the Breakthrough Program.

Another trusted connector is Reverend Cedric Walker, Lead Pastor of Joshua’s Temple Missionary Baptist Church on Fort Wayne’s southeast side. Walker has long sought opportunities to catalyze entrepreneurship among his predominantly African-American congregation and neighborhood community.

“Everybody wants to be an entrepreneur. They want to be their own boss,” said Walker. “Not everyone can do that, but we wanted to plant the idea. You may be that person with the gift to be your own boss. Maybe you work in the construction trades for about five or six years and you decide, ‘You know what? I think I can do this on my own.’ Well, we want to be able to give that person the tools and the skills they need to succeed.”

“Breakthrough is great for those in our church or in our workforce development program who might be interested in entrepreneurship – folks I have connection with, who have been talking about starting a business.” Walker has referred several individuals to Breakthrough Program. “He’s a great advocate for the program, and he’s also enrolled in the training himself,” she said.

Another trusted connector with strong community relationships is the Allen County Public Library (ACPL). Sanchez collaborates with Dee Jia, Business, Science, and Technology Department Manager, and Nathaniel Burnard, Main Library Manager. With its many neighborhood branches, expert staff, and a vast collection of print and digital business resources, ACPL is a strategic ally for the Breakthrough Program.

“We have 14 locations open to the public across the county, and many branches are in neighborhoods that The NIIC would like to reach, in both urban areas and rural areas,” Burnard said. “We have also had programs for veterans and other target groups for the Breakthrough Program. We recognized this as a good opportunity to leverage the library’s reach — whether it be physical locations, virtual programs, or social media — to connect some of our customers to The NIIC, so they could start their entrepreneurial journeys.”

“Ultimately that benefits the library, too, because more people use our services. We have all these great databases and resources that we want to see people use. Our mission is encouraging lifelong learning and discovery. This is another way to do that,” Burnard added.

“In my department, business comes first,” said Jia. “We have many resources, both in print and digital, about how to set up your own small business, create a business plan, and all the related topics, such as finance and accounting. And with digital resources, like the A to Z Databases or Udemy courses, you can access those 24-7. As long as you have a library card, you can access resources from anywhere where you have a computer and the Internet.”

Earlier this month, Jia and Sanchez collaborated on new webinar training titled Breakthrough 1: A Journey of How to Start Your Own Business. The video workshop showcased tools and resources to help individuals identify and assess their unique business-building skills.

“The Breakthrough Program is successful because of the participants who are embracing their entrepreneurial passion and collaboration with our trusted connectors, who have deep community relationships,” said LaPan. “We are grateful to the Foellinger Foundation for their investment in this program and for the leadership of partners like Amani Family Services, Allen County Public Library, and the church community for helping us engage aspiring entrepreneurs who have tremendous talent and need those connections to move forward on their journeys. Our Breakthrough trusted connectors are bridges to opportunity, and this program is designed for people to live more connected and fulfilled lives.”

For more information about the Breakthrough Program, visit TheNIIC.Org/inclusive-entrepreneurship/breakthrough-program/.

About The NIIC

499 new products launched, 196 patent applications submitted or granted, and 2,351 jobs created—that is what entrepreneurs have achieved through The NIIC since its inception two decades ago. The NIIC has also connected Northeast Indiana companies to attract $100.4 million in grants and capital.

The NIIC is a non-profit, vibrant entrepreneurial community designed to advise entrepreneurs to plan, launch, and grow successful business ventures. The NIIC bolsters innovative companies to move ideas into action. The NIIC is located in a designated U.S. Small Business Administration HUB Zone. In April 2018, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb designated The Northeast Indiana Innovation Park Campus as an  Opportunity Zone through the U.S. Treasury. The NIIC is the country’s only ISO9001:2015 registered business incubation and acceleration program. TheNIIC.org. Click here for The NIIC press kit.

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